The Rosehill Theatre was the creation of Sir Nicholas Sekers, who emigrated from Hungary in 1937 and founded the West Cumberland Silk Mills at Hensingham, Whitehaven (later Sekers Fabrics Ltd). He quickly became prominent in the fashion world and his interest in the arts led him into friendship with many of the great names in music and drama.
He was a founder trustee of the Glyndebourne Arts Trust and in 1954 was instrumental in setting up the Friends of Glyndebourne society. Four years later he set up his own Arts Trust to convert a barn in the grounds of his home at Rosehill into a theatre. The Arts Trust was established in 1958 under the chairmanship of Sir John Kennedy.
Sekers took the first step towards building the new theatre by buying the interior of the Royal Standard, an old music hall in Whitehaven. Unfortunately it did not prove possible to incorporate this into the new theatre, although painted panels from the old music hall are still to be seen at Rosehill today along the front of the circle.
Sekers reacted to the change of plans by asking one of England's leading theatrical designers, Oliver Messel to produce a scheme for the interior of the theatre. This included stylistic features from the Royal Standard, in particular the griffons above the proscenium arch.
The griffon continues to be the theatre's emblem and a pair of modern stainless steel griffons now flank the entrance in the new portico installed in 1998. Messel's original sketches for the decor of the auditorium and foyer are displayed in the theatre's bistro.
Sekers set about raising funds for the new Arts Trust and was well supported by his colleagues in the Cumbrian business world as well as by many individuals who set up covenants to provide the necessary finance. Building work began in January 1959 and was completed in time for a grand opening on 3rd September. A prologue especially written by the poet Christopher Hassall was read by Peggy Ashcroft, and the concert featured the London Mozart Players conducted by Harry Blech with Barry Tuckwell as horn soloist.
During the course of Rosehill's first season, there were 28 classical music concerts with some outstanding artists, including Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin, Clifford Curzon, Claudio Arrau, Gervase de Peyer and the Tatrai Quartet of Budapest (first performance in England). A week of drama from the Oxford Playhouse Company and performances by Emlyn Williams, Bernard Miles and Peggy Ashcroft were also featured during a year in which the theatre opened its door 43 times.
Over its first twelve years Sekers continued to have a major input into the programming of the theatre. In a letter to Sir John Kennedy in 1960 he commented:
"To get artists at the present level and the present fees can only be achieved through personal connections. So I have to use my friendship to persuade them to travel up to the north from London for a couple a days or to come from overseas for just a token fee."
Many who did so were accommodated in Rosehill House itself, where the Sekers hospitality was legendary.
In 1965 Sekers was knighted for his services to the arts. When he died in 1972 the theatre's range had already widened, with the 71/72 season featuring 21 concerts of classical music and 33 drama performances plus two of folk and one of jazz. Rosehill today presents some 150 performances in the year. Without the Sekers influence and contacts it cannot maintain the flow of high level artists of the early years but it is still an important venue for classical music and drama. It has also widened its range much further to include jazz, rock, folk, children's shows, talks and films.
The theatre has retained the atmosphere that was acclaimed in 1959 as a "rose-red silk lined jewel box". The walls of the Auditorium were relined in 1997 with Sekers silk fabric identical to that used originally. What was initially a second bar and later a restaurant was converted into the present bistro in 1992.
The most striking change to the appearance of the theatre is the canopy over the main entrance installed in June 1998 as part of the development scheme part funded by the National Lottery. The improvements have included disabled access in the foyer, new lighting and sound equipment, a new heating and ventilation system for the auditorium, the provision of a projection box and film equipment, the rewiring of the premises and a computerised box office system. The National Lottery funding also made it possible to complete the development of the Rosehill Barn adjacent to the theatre. Work was completed in 1998 and the full facilities are now in use for rehearsals, performances, classes, exhibitions, weddings, seminars, conferences and other functions. The Barn is now home to a fortnightly folk club, a weekly theatre school, youth theatre rehearsals and meetings by art classes and WI groups etc.
The theatre has a three full time members of staff. Rosehill Theatre is owned and administered by Rosehill Arts Trust Limited, a non-profit making organisation and a registered charity, which relies on subsidies from Copeland Borough Council, Cumbria County Council and Northern Arts as well as on the support of local industry and individual patrons.